Ultimate Ears UE Live

Rating:
4.5/5,
  1. twister6
    We’ll do it LIVE!
    Written by twister6
    Published Sep 13, 2018
    4.5/5,
    Pros - rich smooth tonality, powerful bass impact, 8-driver hybrid design, new IPX cable system.
    Cons - custom fit only, proprietary cable connector, not as forgiving tuning.


    The product was provided to me free of charge for the review purpose in exchange for my honest opinion. The review was originally posted on my blog, and now I would like to share it with my readers on head-fi.

    Manufacturer website: Ultimate Ears Pro. Available for sale directly from manufacturer or other distributors, like Music Sanctuary.


    Intro.

    Ultimate Ears is not exactly the type of manufacturer who likes to shock us with surprises, yet early this year (in April) they made 2 announcements nobody expected. First one was the introduction of two new hybrid models (UE 6 Pro and UE Live), a step forward from their traditional all-BA designs, and the second one was a new IPX cable system in collaboration with Estron A/S who are well known for their popular Linum cables. Being quite familiar with UERR and UE18+ Pro, I couldn't resist to check out the sound tuning of their new flagship 8-driver hybrid UE Live and to find out more about their new IPX cable connector.

    This is not my first UE write up, I have reviewed UERR in the past, and still consider it as one of my go-to IEMs (no pun intended since their universal version is actually called To-Go). UERR has a unique tuning which appeals to performing musicians, music producers, and audiophiles, while UE18+ Pro has more of an audiophile appeal. Which tuning route the latest UE Live will follow and will it be able to dethrone both UERR and UU18+ Pro? Let's find out!

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    Unboxing and Accessories.

    With a modest smaller size black cardboard box and a magnetic flip cover, there is nothing flashy about the minimalistic packaging UE Live arrived in. Once cover is lifted, inside of a jewelry like presentation with satin material covering foam cutout, you will find a round puck case. This case has an aluminum plating on outside (I can feel it being cold to the touch) and a plastic shell inside with a soft foam lining. The top of the case is threaded which makes it easier to open the cover without IEMs flying out (unlike the aluminum UERR puck case back when I reviewed those).

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    I have seen other similar puck cases, but they are usually all metal and very heavy, or plastic and not as durable. This one has a combination of aluminum (for durability) and plastic (for lightweight) which you can also customize with your name on the top, though it's still not exactly pocket friendly. Also, included was a cinch bag to protect IEM shells from scratches inside the case, and a cleaning tool/brush. Furthermore, I found instructions manual with a guide to how to wear CIEMs, how to take care of them, and tips about safe listening.

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    Cable / IPX connector.

    All my flagship IEM reviews usually include a separate cable section where in addition to cable description I also talk about cable rolling (trying different cables). It's a very common practice among audiophiles who want to fine tune the sound, to squeeze a few more ounces of performance improvement, often at diminishing return cost. I don't want to get into the argument about cables and the sound, will just leave it at me being a cable believer because I do hear the difference.

    But if your target audience is a group of performing musician, cable requirements will change because #1 priority becomes durability of the connection, making sure it will not fail under extreme conditions of sweat, earwax, makeup, and wire strain during stage performance. That was a reason why all UE CIEMs in the previous gens used a less common 0.74mm 2pin connector housing designed with a guard sleeve that wrapped around the shell socket to protect from dust and moisture or the accidental pulling on the cable. This type of a connector requires more force to unplug the cable, but it wasn't enough for UE.

    I can only assume, as part of the feedback while continuing to improve the design, UE wanted a connector with the same benefits and easier locking mechanism while adding a higher audio quality wires. The result is Linum SuperBax cable with super low 0.75ohm impedance and a custom IPX connector. This Linum cable is made of 6 Litz conductors, each with 7 individual strands, where each strand is made from a silver-plated copper with enamel. A very strong cable, tested to withstand a pull force of up to 60N, with a skin friendly and UV safe TPA material jacket which yields zero microphonics.

    The cable has a total of 4 inner-twisted conductors, terminated with a right angled 3.5mm SE molded connector, molded plastic y-splitter, and a chin slider with a locking mechanism where you squeeze sides to extend inner part which slides out to allow easy adjustment and then slides back in to securely lock it in place. Above the splitter you have 2 inner-twisted conductors going to each side of the earpiece, terminated with a new IPX connector bullet. The connector reminds me a little bit of mmcx, but it's smaller, tighter fitting, doesn't spin easily, and has a very secure yet easy to disconnect locking mechanism. The connectors are color coded with red (right) and black (left), have IP67 rating (waterproof), and guaranteed for up to 3,000 disconnect cycles.

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    The cable is available in either 50" or 64" variants, and it's a very durable, sweat-proof, weatherproof, lightweight yet strong, and offers a decent audio performance. There is a little bit of memory effect when you unwind it, but it straightens out quickly. Of course, I can't compare it to other cables since no others are available yet with IPX connectors, but I'm very familiar with SuperBax cable which I have been using for years and have plenty of experience with to conclude the improvement in resolution and transparency when compared to stock OFC cables, and a great pair up with multi-BA IEMs, thanks to its super low impedance.

    While only offered now with 3.5mm Single Ended (SE) termination, Linum is looking into various balanced 2.5mm TRRS connectors, and I also received one of their prototype balanced cables. It's the same cable, just using one of the BAL connectors Linum has under consideration, which appears to be a high-quality plug with a very comfortable grip and all metal housing. I even decided to run a quick test with Linum IPX SE vs BAL using SP1000 SS as my source.

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    In theory, IPX SE should sound the same as IPX BAL w/SE adapter. But to my surprise, while tonality remained nearly the same, the soundstage expansion was: BAL > BAL w/SE adapter > SE. These are two identical cables where the only difference is SE connector vs BAL w/SE adapter, and apparently the combination of the connector/adapter makes a difference where I hear a wider soundstage. Of course, in general, the advantage of a balanced terminated cable is being able to use BAL output of your source where in many cases you have a lower noise floor and a wider soundstage expansion, among other benefits. Just remember, switching a termination connector is a not a magic that going to improve your sound. The key here is a synergy with a source that has a properly designed balanced output.

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    Design.

    UE Live is available only in custom fit (CIEM) which requires ear impression from a professional audiologist or using UE 3D Ear Scanner system. If you are a returning customer, your impression is stored on digital file for a fast recall and 3D printing. The customization is done using UE Designer where you have a choice of 20 colors, 10 wood finishes, 10 pattern finishes, 4 specialty material, or a custom artwork when it comes to the faceplate. The shell itself stays clear, and I noticed it was more transparent and less "cloudy" then UERR. I know UE been trying to improve their 3D printing process, trying to reach a compromise between the shell clarity and the thickness of the walls for more durability. They are certainly making a progress.

    Inside you will find 6 Balanced Armature drivers, 1 True Tone Plus (improved over the original True Tone) BA driver, and one 6mm dynamic driver. All 8 drivers are partitioned into 3 Lows, 4 Mids, 1 High/Mid, and 1 High with 4 distinct channels routed into precision tooled branched acoustic audio paths which get combined into one going to a single bore opening in the nozzle. Also, to minimize (and simplify) crossover components, each driver is customized and tuned for a specific bandwidth.

    The overall sensitivity is a little lower, at 105 dB, and the impedance of 10ohm is also on a lower side, all of which shouldn't be a problem when using low impedance SuperBax cable and when paired up with low output impedance source. I will cover sound analysis, comparison, and pair up with different sources in the follow up sections of my reviews.

    UE Live fit was perfect, and using these CIEMs with Linum SuperBax was very comfortable, can hardly feel it. As I mentioned before, I didn't experience any microphonics, and isolation was pretty good, according to UE these should offer 26dB of isolation. UE also offers the ambient feature option (need to specify in UE Designer when building the CIEM) which allows for the stage sound-bleed, so you can hear more ambient stage atmosphere at expense of some attenuation in low-end. It's an option which some stage performing musicians might find useful.

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    The fit.

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    Sound Analysis.

    I analyzed UE Live sound performance across different sources while playing a variety of test tracks, such as Agnes Obel “The curse”, Sandro Cavazza “So much better” (Avicii remix), C-Bool “Never go away”, Ed Sheeran “Shape of you”, Galantis “Hunter”, Iggy Azalea “Black widow”, Indila “Boite en argent”, Robin Schultz “Oh child”, David Elias “Vision of her”, and Michael Jackson “Dirty Diana”. Also, UE Live went through about 100hrs of burn in before I started analyzing it, just playing tracks in the loop, to make sure its DD is fully conditioned.

    UE Live has a reversed J-shaped sound signature (not quite L-shaped and not exactly V-shaped) based on a boosted low-end impact and some lift in lower treble. The tonality is rich, smooth, lush, musical. As a result, UE Live tuning yields a sound which is full of natural organic details that have more focus on warm smooth naturalness rather than high resolution or high clarity. Basically, you get a full bodied thicker sound with an analog quality bass slam, organic lush mids, and well-defined treble, except for a peak in lower treble around 8k which puts a little more emphasis on "s", though to my ears it's not harsh or sibilant.

    Soundstage is wide, audibly above average but not super wide, and with a nice depth, not exactly too intimate or too far out of your head but rather somewhere in between. Soundstage scales up/down, depending on the source, and can feel narrower with my phone and a lot wider with SP1000. Imaging is OK, but due to a warmer smoother sound and a low-end lift, don't expect a super accurate positioning of sounds.

    You can already guess, this is not an audiophile tuned IEM with anemic bass, analytical retrieval of details, or transparency with zero coloring. The sound is lush, laid back, with a rich tonality and thicker body, and yet it's not congested or veiled. I'm not sure if this has to do with a precision of crossover design or the bandwidth limited accuracy of every driver tuning, but UE made it work where the bass is big and analog, doesn't have as fast decay, yet it coherently blends with the mids instead of "bleeding" into the mids.

    Starting with low end, you have a deep smooth velvety sub-bass rumble which is elevated but not too overwhelming, and a slower attack rounded mid-bass slam which is linearly balanced with sub-bass. Mid-bass also has a slower attack, with an overall bass having a typical analog quality dynamic driver response. This is not a tight layered bass, it's big, it goes deep, it drives the sound signature. This is a type of bass you would expect from floor standing speakers with big subs. For my preference, I was OK with its quantity and didn't feel it was overwhelming. Also, in my opinion, it will please both bassheads and "regular" audio enthusiasts.

    With mids, lower mids are north of neutral, with a thicker fuller body. I was on the fence if the thickness of lower mids is due to mid-bass bleed, but as I mentioned already, the bass is big yet somehow controlled, thus to my ears I consider these having a fuller body by tuning. Upper mids are smooth, organic, lush. They do have a natural warmer tonality with plenty of clarify, but don't expect high level of micro-details here. Vocals, both male and female, do sound very rich and natural, except for some poorly recorded tracks where 8k peak (lower treble) can accentuate “s”, depending on your ear sensitivity.

    When you move up to a treble, this one caught me by a little surprise. It's well controlled, clear, has not a bad definition, but starts to roll off after about 12.4k (based on my measurements and multiple sine sweeps). Don't expect a typical 12k peak to give you higher definition. UE really went for a smooth lush sound, while maintaining its definition with a boost around 8k. As a result, you have a peak between an infamous 6k sibilance and popular 12k high definition marks. This way it worked well to preserve the clarity without adding extra crunch or sparkle. With a roll-off of a treble extension, don't expect too much airiness either.

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    Comparison.

    In each comparison I used SP1000 SS and Plenue 2 mk2 as my sources. Also, each pair was volume matched for consistency.

    UE Live vs UE18+ Pro - relative to U18+, Live soundstage expands a little wider while the 18+ has a little more depth and more out-of-your-head perception. When listening to both IEMs, the first thing that stands out is the difference in bass response where Live slams harder with a deeper chest pounding sub-bass rumble and a boomier mid-bass punch, giving the sound a more analog "big" speaker feeling, while U18+ sub-bass has a leaner sub-bass rumble and a more neutral mid-bass, more typical of BA driver performance. The same with lower mids, you will hear a thicker and fuller body sound with Live, while 18+ is leaner, above neutral but still leaner when compared to Live. With mids, both have organic musical mids, but Live has a more natural smoother tonality, while 18+ sounds more revealing in comparison. Also, 18+ mids are more forward due to a better balance with the bass. With treble, each has a unique tuning where Live puts more emphasis around 8k and then rolls off the treble to keep it smoother, while 18+ starts to roll off after 6k and then has a distinct peak around 12k to give the sound more sparkle and higher definition. These differences are what keeps me from referring to Live as an upgrade of 18+. Instead, I find them just following two different tuning paths, where Live is suited better for musicians who want a thicker and more analog bottom end with more natural smoother mids and less treble emphasis, while 18+ is for audiophiles who want a more balanced natural revealing tonality with a better treble extension and definition. Also, Live is more efficient, doesn't have to push volume as loud as 18+.

    UE Live vs 64 Audio N8 – In this comparison, Live soundstage has a more intimate feeling while N8 is a little wider and more further out. Both have a very powerful deep analog bass, where N8 hits a little harder in mid-bass and has a faster and tighter overall bass, while Live bass goes deeper, more rounded, and has a bit longer decay. Both have a natural organic mids, but Live mids have a little thicker body and more intimate closer presentation, while N8 mids are more revealing and with a more forward presentation. With treble, the extension is similar in both, more controlled and with less airiness, but Live is crisper in tonality, giving upper frequencies a little more sparkle, making N8 sound smoother. One obvious difference is around 8k peak. This peak is on a borderline between higher definition and sibilance, and depending on the quality of the recording, can swing either way. When I took FR measurements (with Veritas coupler) of both N8 and Live, their FR had a striking similarity, yet they handle this 8k peak differently. You can throw in a poorly recorded track at N8, and it will handle it with more forgiveness in comparison to Live which can be more brutally honest.

    UE Live vs EE Legend X - While Live has a decent soundstage expansion, LX goes wider and further out of your head with a more holographic expansion. The biggest difference here, which jumps at you from the first second of listening, is the bass impact which is overwhelmingly more powerful in LX with a more elevated sub-bass rumble and a lot harder hitting mid-bass. Those loathing after a basshead level bass would probably prefer a faster LX slam, while Live bass is more relaxed and with a slightly reduced quantity and longer decay. Both have a thicker fuller body lower mids, and natural organic upper mids, though I find Live upper mids to be a little more revealing while LX is a little smoother in comparison. But in general, mids between these two have more similarities. With treble, Live has a more pronounced 8k peak while LX keeps it under control, but then Live rolls it off while LX picks it up with 12k peak to give its upper treble more sparkle and crisper definition. Still, in my opinion, the most noticeable difference here is in bass response where LX hits a lot harder which I found a little overwhelming for my personal taste.

    UE Live vs W80 - Both have a very similar soundstage width, while W80 has more out-of-your-head staging depth. In this comparison the upper hand in bass slam goes to Live which has more sub-bass and mid-bass quantity, going deeper and slamming harder, while W80 with its enhanced low-end response feels more neutral, a little faster, and with shorter decay in comparison to Live. Lower mids are also a little leaner in W80, closer to neutral, in comparison to a fuller body thicker lower mids in Live. In terms of tonality, upper mids (vocals) are closer in comparison, maybe with W80 being a little brighter. The biggest difference here is in presentation which is more forward in W80 while pushed a little back in Live. Part of it also has to do with a signature where W80 bass is more balanced, helping to bring mids more forward, versus Live where the bass has more focus while pushing mids a little back.

    UE Live vs CFA Vega - I hear Vega with a wider soundstage, while both have a similar staging depth. In this comparison, Vega stands out with more sub-bass rumble and a harder hitting mid-bass slam. It felt like Vega bass scales up in quantity while trying to maintain a similar quality, maybe just with a little shorter decay. Both have a similar above neutral fuller body lower mids, and quite similar natural organic upper mids. There is a little resemblance here, perhaps with Vega upper mids being slightly more forward. When it comes to treble, both have a very similar 8k peak in lower treble, which is a little more pronounced in Vega. Either monitors are not as forgiving when it comes to poorly recorded tracks, especially with sibilance. Mid-treble has some variations where Live sounds a little smoother due to a sharper roll off, while Vega has a touch more shimmer. But overall, with an exception of scaled up higher quantity bass (Vega), these have a lot of similarities in mids and treble.

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    Pair up.

    From Live spec, it has 10ohm impedance (lower than an average), and 105dB sensitivity, which is also on a lower side. Usually, with lower sensitivity you need to push volume a little harder, but to my surprise I had to lower the volume down by about 10 clicks. In my pair-up notes below I noted the connection type (balanced or single ended) and the volume level. With an exception of my smartphone, everything was tested balanced, and with WM1Z and DX200 w/amp8 - I used 4.4mm adapter.

    A&K SP1000 (BAL, v54) - wide expanded soundstage, rev J-shaped sig, smooth rounded bass, clear organic mids (nicely balanced), sparkle in lower treble. Overall sound is lush and smooth.

    Cowon Plenue 2 mk2 (BAL, v44) - wide expanded soundstage, rev J-shaped sig, smooth bass with a little extra kick, clear organic mids (slightly pushed back, more intimate), a little more sparkle in lower treble. The sound is still lush and smooth.

    Hiby R6 (BAL, v37) - wide soundstage, rev J-shaped sig, bass sounds a little faster and tighter, and has a better balance with mids which are smooth and detailed. Treble has a bigger roll-off here, even 8k peak in lower treble is slightly attenuated. I suspect 10ohm output impedance of R6 to have an effect here.

    iBasso DX200Ti w/amp8 (BAL, v48) - very wide soundstage, the sound sig is more balanced here, even so bass still has stronger impact, while mids are more forward and more revealing (in a natural way), and treble has more sparkle, even some additional crunch. Probably one of my favorite pair up.

    Sony WM1Z (BAL, v63) - very wide soundstage, maybe even wider than DX200Ti/amp8, the sound sig is more balanced, the bass has a deep sub-bass rumble and a faster attack and shorter decay of mid-bass punch which has more control. Mids are natural with a more revealing tonality and layered sound. Lower treble has more accentuation on "s", with an overall treble being brighter and crisper. Another great pair up to my ears, but at the same any poorly recorded track with sibilance will be more fatigue since it gets more accentuated. I enjoyed it similarly to DX200Ti.

    FiiO X5iii (BAL, v32) - even so soundstage has a nice expansion and the overall sound sig was more balanced, I couldn't get pass the "waterfall" of the background noise hissing which is quite strong here.

    FiiO X7ii (BAL, v26) - wide expanded soundstage, rev J-shaped sig, smoother rounded bass, clear organic mids (slightly pushed back, more intimate), sparkle in lower treble. A little bit of background hissing/noise. To my ears, not a bad pair up, just lacking some dynamics.

    Samsung Galaxy S9 (SE w/adapter) - a little narrower soundstage, bass has a slight sub-bass roll off, while mid-bass is faster and has a nice punch. Signature is more V-shaped. Mids are a little brighter and less organic, and lower treble is peaking with a little bit of sibilance.

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    Conclusion.

    Not the first time I mentioned this, but in the last few years we all got a little spoiled with so many flagship releases that push our expectations to the next level with a desire for more drivers, thirst for more resolving tuning, need of more complicated crossovers, and craving for fancier aftermarket cables. There is nothing wrong with incremental updates and relative improvements, but I realized that even with some of these improvements a new flagship doesn't have to dethrone the old one. And certainly, a new flagship doesn’t have to follow a set of predefined rules. A company could have multiple flagships, coexisting and targeting different audience, with some preferring UE18+ Pro or UERR, and others going for UE Live.

    I do think that UE Live was tuned to please musicians as their primary target, as well as audiophiles who want a more natural organic tonality with more low-end analog quality impact and less treble emphasis. This tuning is not as forgiving as some other smoother tuned natural tonality IEMs because there is a little bit of spike in lower treble, but even with that – the sound is not fatigue or harsh. Another thing that stands out for me is the included SuperBax premium Linum cable with a new IPX connector system ($250 value) which shows that UE takes every aspect of the design very seriously because musician rely on it and us, audiophiles, also get the benefit of this meticulous process improvement. UE updated all their CIEMs with this new connector, and I’m curious now if any other manufacturer will follow it.